Bangladeshi workers in Middle East
Exploitation of Bangladeshi migrant workers begins with the seizure of their passports by employers, say former diplomats and ambassadors who served in Middle Eastern countries.
They say holding passports makes the workers slaves of the employers as police will send foreign workers to jail if they are caught without their documents.
The workers claim they are helpless, being caught in a dilemma, as employers threaten lower-than-contract wages if they refuse to hand over their passports.
As remedial measures, the government must take action against dishonest recruiting agents and make workers are aware of the various forms exploitation by employers abroad, they said.
Former SAARC Secretary General QAMA Rahim told bdnews24.com: "The workers become virtual slaves when their passports are taken away by employers, as their status in a foreign land becomes illegal without passports."
Rahim, who also served as diplomat in Qatar, said corrupt recruiting agents were also a root cause of worker exploitation.
"These forms of exploitation cannot be stopped without bringing the recruiting agents into line," said Rahim.
Amin Ahmed Chowdhury, a former Bangladesh ambassador to Oman, told bdnews24.com: "Brokers of employers and recruiting agents take workers' passports on arrival, saying they are necessary for making identity and medical cards."
"Their exploitation starts with the taking away of passports," said Amin, who pointed out the practice was illegal.
He added that the brokers of the recruiting agents often made workers sign new contracts in a foreign language for much lower wages than pledged in Bangladesh.
Another former ambassador, retired major general Syeed Ahmed, felt similarly.
He said passports were the basic right of workers and the extent of exploitation would not be so severe if workers kept their passports with them.
The government urgently needs to take steps in cooperation with receiving countries to prevent employers seizing workers' passports, said Syeed, who served as ambassador in Kuwait in 2003-04.
"The recruiting agents are also largely responsible for these types of labour exploitation. The government must take action against the errant recruiting agents," Syeed said.
President of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agents (BAIRA) Golam Mostofa, however, denied such allegations.
"It may be that in a very small number of cases, unscrupulous recruiting agents send unskilled workers in the name of skilled workers," said Mostofa.
"But it is a sweeping generalisation that we are the responsible for labour exploitation. It is absolutely wrong," he told bdnews24.com.
He said employers kept workers' passports as some workers leave their jobs without permission.
"They also hold the workers passports for safekeeping," claimed the BAIRA president.
Mostafa added that embassy officials were also supposed to look after the welfare of the workers and bring any exploitative practices to the notice of the host governments.
"But the embassies don't properly undertake this responsibility," said Mostofa.
M Shafiullah, who served in different capacities as a diplomat in Iraq and Jordan among other Middle Eastern countries, told bdnews24.com the workers were exploited mainly because of their own ignorance.
"The workers do not know anything about the procedure of coming to the Middle East. They just sign contract papers here, or in the receiving countries, without knowing anything."
"The embassy or the government can do little to solve this type of problem. Because, if we challenge it, the employers show the paper with the workers' signatures," he said.
Shafiullah added the workers could lodge complaints to the embassy, but the officials hands were tied if the workers themselves signed contracts for lower wages.
Recruiting agents play the key role in sending migrant workers abroad. They receive demands from the foreign companies, who also offer salaries through the recruiting agents.
The recruiting agents can only recruit and send workers, however, once the government approves the salaries and other facilities.
It is also the responsibility of the labour officer of Bangladeshi missions abroad to monitor employers and employment conditions. The embassy should bring to the notice of host governments any major problems.
Foreign affairs adviser Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury told bdnews24.com that the government was trying to solve the problems of expatriate workers.
"If any local agents are found guilty of exploitation, the government will take action against them," Dr Iftekhar told this correspondent.